transition planning

Growth assured, Democracy Prep plans for a founder-less future

Superintendent Seth Andrew answers questions after the Democracy Prep admissions lottery event earlier this year.

When the first crop of seniors at Democracy Prep Charter High School graduates next June, they won’t be alone. The founder of the school’s network of charter schools will be exiting alongside them.

Seth Andrew, the founder and superintendent of the six-school network, has spent the last week making hundreds of phone calls to friends and professional contacts to let them know that he will be stepping down in June, seven years after launching a middle school steeped in civic values.

Andrew’s decision comes weeks after the U.S. Department of Education announced that Democracy Prep Public Schools would be one of two charter school networks to get federal funding to expand. Democracy Prep will get $9.1 million over five years to open 15 new schools in Harlem; Camden, N.J.; and potentially beyond.

Andrew said the award made him confident that he could depart without destabilizing Democracy Prep — and relieved that the network would be able to grow using only public funds, a value to the network.

“The organization is incredibly healthy,” he said today, speaking by phone from Boston, where he had been meeting with Building Excellent Schools, the nonprofit that helped him start up his first school a decade ago. “This is the time to do a transition.”

Andrew opened his flagship middle school, Democracy Prep Charter School, in 2006 with a $30,000 grant from the city’s Center for Charter School Excellence (now named the New York City Charter School Center). He expanded to a high school in 2009 to accommodate his graduating eighth-graders and has since opened three more middle schools.

Last year, Andrew was granted permission to acquire a charter to run a failing elementary school, Harlem Day Charter School. Mayor Bloomberg declared the takeover a success last spring, in the process comparing Andrew to Jeremy Lin, a basketball player who was then on a streak with the Knicks.

Accelerating its expansion plans doesn’t mean that Democracy Prep is giving up on the idea of taking over struggling schools, Andrew said. The network’s application for the federal grant explicitly asked for permission to create new schools and take over existing ones, he said, adding that conversations are underway in the city and elsewhere about both strategies.

Andrew will help engineer the first round of new schools because he will continue to run Democracy Prep until the end of the school year while the school’s board searches for his replacement. Using the consulting firm Bellwether Education Partners for support, the board members will look across the country and at “some very strong internal candidates,” he said today, hours before sending a mass email announcing his impending departure.

A graduate of the Bronx High School of Science who taught briefly in Massachusetts and Korea early in his career, Andrew said he doesn’t know what he will be doing a year from now — only that he will still be running his fledgling parent advocacy group, Democracy Builders, and working toward the same goal that motivated him to start Democracy Prep.

“My life’s work is truly high quality education for every child in the world,” he said. “I am considering everything and there are certainly lots of different ways and different places to make impact.”

But he said there are two areas of education policy that he thinks need particular attention right now. The first is the “talent pipeline” that brings teachers and principals to schools. Too often, he said, policy makers have focused on rules about firing bad teachers, when they should be thinking more about how to recruit and create great ones.

“There’s no way to get rid of teachers and just think that fixes schools,” Andrew said.

The other is the concept that Neerav Kingsland, a New Orleans charter school advocate, calls “relinquishment.” Rather than centralize control, Kingsland argues, superintendents should let families and schools make decisions for themselves, while still holding schools accountable for their performance.

“I’m interested in being disruptive and trying to push new boundaries in those fields,” Andrew said today.

Within the city’s guarded charter school sector, Andrew stands out for more than his ubiquitous yellow Democracy Prep hat. He and Democracy Prep’s board made a decision to tie his salary to the Department of Education’s salary structure for a similar position, even as some charter school operators earned salaries twice as high. They also avoided allowing the network’s schools to become dependent on private fundraising, an essential support for some charter schools.

And while he eagerly touts his schools’ academic accomplishments, he sometimes sounds even more excited about their civic engagement. He required students to attend and participate in civic events, and sent them out to canvass the Harlem community to vote on Election Day. Four Democracy Prep students attended the Democratic National Convention with him last month.

“I have great respect for the work he’s done in Harlem and the civic engagement he’s instilled in every Democracy Prep student,” said Mona Davids, a former charter school parent who has been a vocal critic of some charter school practices. She said Andrew was among the first charter leaders she met when she started a charter school parent advocacy group in 2009.

Davids said she regularly fought with Andrew because she said he refused to start a parent association at the school. “We just agree to disagree on that.”

After drawing the spotlight to himself this week, Andrew said he hopes attention will soon shift to the network of schools he has spent developing for the better part of his career so far.

He added, “Democracy Prep should not be about me, it should be about vision and implementation. Right now Democracy Prep and Seth are kind of synonymous, and that’s an unhealthy thing.”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede